“This candidate spent a year in their last job, 18 months at the job before that, and 9 months at the role before that. Too risky. Bring me someone with longer tenures.”
This is the most common objection I hear from CEOs when discussing candidates for CMO roles.
While short tenures are a red flag for many executive roles in general, that flag burns an even deeper red when hiring CMOs. It’s just hard to get hiring right for CMOs.
Many people have chronicled the average tenure of CMOs and opined on why those tenures can be short.
My take on why CMO tenures can be short in growth-stage B2B tech companies in particular:
– Misalignment in the role design: This is a big one, and it’s avoidable. There can be significant misalignment between CEO expectations and CMO responsibilities, and further misalignment between the CMO’s responsibilities and their authority, resources, and incentives. When a CEO and CMO don’t align ‘early and often’, the result is a cycle of mixed signals, disappointment, missed goals, and, ultimately, parting ways.
– Differing expectations on how long it will take to get marketing results: Few CEOs and few non-marketers understand or appreciate how long it takes – and what steps and dependences are involved – to do things like: implement a marketing automation solution; build a serviceable marketing attribution model; get a campaign out the door that passes muster with legal, sales, product, and customer success; develop a sales enablement toolkit that meet the bottomless appetite from sales; build credibility and mindshare with industry analysts.
– Company volatility or macro factors: Startups and scale-ups that are figuring themselves out and struggling for stability tend to experience more volatility than steady-state companies. There can be positive or neutral macro factors, for instance when the company gets acquired or when the headquarters moves to a new city. Often it’s not just the CMO tenures that are short; the short tenures can affect the whole executive suite.
– Outgrowing the role: Would you rather hire someone with five years of experience doing things the old-school way, with moderate results? Or someone who got the job done in less time, in an innovative way, preparing themselves for their next challenge?
– Geographic hot spots: Some geographic regions (the Bay Area, for instance) are notorious for companies that dangle juicy packages in front of talented executives, enabling marketing leaders to climb fast. For these folks, it is less about a push out the door and more about a very compelling pull.
– Insufficient vetting on altitude: Let’s face it: Most good marketing leaders are articulate, personable, and persuasive. Some are simply better at selling themselves into a job than at doing that job. In the case of a startup or scale-up in particular, the CEO can mistakenly hire the star CMO who can talk a good game, but is not as comfortable or knowledgeable getting their hands dirty.
– Cultural mismatch: Someone can be very successful in one culture and flame out in a different culture.
Net: There can be many reasons for a short tenure, and many of them are not necessarily cause for alarm.
“Hell, No?” Or, “Well, Maybe?” What To Do When That Compelling CMO Candidate Has Short Tenures
Let’s say you have a marketing leadership candidate who has had short stints, and your first reaction is “Hell, no.” Realize that you could be right. Or, you could be missing out on someone great. Here are some suggestions for how to navigate, in the spirit of “Well, maybe.”
1) Examine your worry. Are you worried about how it looks to others who are sensitive about short tenures? Those others could be your investors, your partners, your team, or the press, for instance. Or, are you worried that the candidate has not learned as much from their short stays? Perhaps you are anxious that they would leave you, infecting your company with short tenure-itis. Dig into these concerns with a spirit of inquiry and curiosity. The answers can help you achieve newfound clarity around what you need in your CMO.
2) Seek out a pattern. Ask for what I like to call the push and pull factors for the candidate switching roles. What factors were behind them leaving each job and taking another one? This is one of the most targeted uses of the ‘walk me through your resume’ interview question. Ask the candidate what patterns they see. See if you can find some patterns for yourself.
3) Realize that a candidate who recently had a cultural mismatch is unlikely to make the same mistake twice in a row. Perhaps you’ve noticed, in your own network of friends and associates, the following pattern: Someone does a long successful stint at one company, then joins a new organization, quickly realizes it is a mis-step, and stays only a short while.
If a candidate has been in one place for a long time with a good fit, their vocabulary for describing that fit may not be current or specific. It’s like being in weather that is 72 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny – the surrounding temperature is so comfortable that tornadoes seem hypothetical.
By contrast, a recent cultural mismatch usually heightens a candidate’s ability to articulate what they are looking for culturally. The candidate tends to be more cautious, and have a fresh vocabulary for discussing what works for them culturally.
4) Get data from references. Ask references for their view on why the candidate made the switches they did. Is their recounting consistent with the patterns that you have seen?
5) Be willing to hire on a provisional basis. The ‘try before you buy’ can be a great model on both sides. You will de-risk a hire by first working with them on a part-time/consulting basis. Even inviting them to spend a half a day immersing in the business will be revealing.
6) Slow your roll. Sometimes anxiety swirls around a candidate, when it is really your anxiety about hiring in general that is coming out sideways. In this case, take a beat and clarify (even for the third or fourth time) what you need from your new CMO.